Champions Classic

Getty Images

VIDEO: Duke freshman Cassius Stanley skies for two straight dunks in Champions Classic

Leave a comment

Duke and Kansas didn’t play the prettiest first half of basketball in Madison Square Garden.

Thankfully, the second half is picking up in the annual Champions Classic thanks in-part to back-to-back fast-break dunks from Blue Devils freshman guard Cassius Stanley.

The four-star prospect skied for two easy dunks from nearly the same spot — the second of which came off a disgusting bounce pass from Duke point guard Tre Jones. Stanley’s 46-inch vertical has been talked about quite a bit this preseason since he broke Zion Williamson’s Duke vertical leap record.

The No. 3 Blue Devils are currently in a tight battle with No. 4 Kansas as they continue in the first game of the Champions Classic.

(H/t: Slam Online)

Michigan State needs ‘2nd half Langford and McQuaid’ to reach full potential

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
2 Comments

After winning the Big Ten regular season title a season ago, No. 10 Michigan State bid farewell to two of its top three scorers in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. While Cassius Winston and Nick Ward are back, and will be expected to once again be major contributors, the Spartans do need to find players capable to help account for the production lost.

Michigan State’s 92-87 loss to top-ranked Kansas Tuesday night in Indianapolis was a mixed bag of sorts. While the first half exposed the Spartans a bit offensively, as they were unable to withstand the Jayhawk onslaught, there were positives to be taken from the second half.

Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid, who combined to score just six points in the first half, accounted for 24 in the second as Michigan State mounted its charge. Both were run off of screens away from the ball, either to receive the ball immediately or via a second pass, on multiple occasions and this approach benefitted the Michigan State offense. After shooting just 34.6 percent from the field in the first half, Michigan State made 51.5 percent of its shots in the second half.

And this wasn’t solely about the in-game improvements of Langford and McQuaid, either. Senior forward Kenny Goins was solid throughout, scoring 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting (3-for-8 3PT) while also grabbing a team-best 11 rebounds. With Winston and Ward struggling with their shots, going a combined 5-for-18 from the field, the production of Goins kept the door open ever so slightly for a comeback.

The Spartans fell short in this regard, with Kansas sealing the outcome with two free throws in the final seconds, but the fact that Tom Izzo’s team was able to get back into the game after a poor first half is something to build on.

Given their track records, Winston and Ward shouldn’t shoot as poorly as they did Tuesday night in future games. But even if that is the case, Michigan State will need others to step up offensively if they’re to retain the Big Ten title and potentially play deep into the NCAA tournament. The second half performance of Langford and McQuaid is something that Michigan State can build upon moving forward.

But that will only happen if the production is consistent over the course of a full game, which was not the case against Kansas.

Top-ranked Kansas takes care of No. 10 Michigan State

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The opening game of the Champions Classic between No. 1 Kansas and No. 10 Michigan State offered up more drama than expected late, but the Jayhawks managed to hang on for the 92-87 victory in the regular season opener for both teams.

While Kansas’ improved depth has been one reason why they’ve been viewed as an early favorite to cut down the nets in April, the Jayhawks’ stars were the difference makers against Michigan State. Freshman guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson performed well on the perimeter, combining to score 37 points (21 for Grimes), with Dedric Lawson adding 20 points and 14 rebounds and Udoka Azubuike scoring 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the field.

The Champions Classic tends to be a good early season litmus test for newcomers, as they are being tested against high-level talent in a big-game environment. But while there’s still plenty of work to be done, neither Dotson nor Grimes looked to be bothered by the big stage Tuesday night. Grimes’ smooth shooting stroke produced six three-pointers, four coming in the first stanza, giving Kansas perimeter production during a half in which it managed to score 26 points in the paint.

Michigan State didn’t have much of an answer for Kansas in the first half, and that includes the dynamic between Lawson and Azubuike.

The addition of Lawson, who averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game at Memphis in 2016-17, gives Kansas a player who can not only score on multiple levels but can also be used as another creator off of the dribble. On multiple occasions Kansas was able to run the two-man game with Lawson and Azubuike, a dynamic that last year’s Final Four team lacked.

Lawson didn’t shoot particularly well Tuesday night, finishing 5-for-18 from the field, but he was able to get to the foul line (8-for-10), control the glass and dish out a game-high six assists. Lawson isn’t going to make a habit of shooting that poorly this season, and his entire set of skills make the redshirt junior an incredibly tough matchup to deal with. And his presence opens things up for a 7-footer in Azubuike outplayed Michigan State’s big men Tuesday night.

Azubuike, who led the nation in field goal percentage last season, had little trouble getting to his spots within the Kansas offense. While there were some instances of the junior center having both feet planted in the paint, there were others where he had to do some work after receiving the entry pass. And his strength was too much for Michigan State to deal with, regardless of which big they sent Azubuike’s way.

There may be occasions when he shares the court with a David McCormack or Silvio De Sousa (if he’s cleared), but those pairings may not happen very often given how well Azubuike and Lawson appear to work together. And as the freshman guards continue to mature, Kansas should be an even tougher team to deal with than they were for much of Tuesday’s season opener.

No. 1 Duke’s loss to No. 7 Kansas cemented their status as title favorite

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
4 Comments

NEW YORK — Just give them the damn title.

It sounds weird saying that when the No. 1 team in the country lost, 77-75, on a neutral floor to a team that was already 0-1 on the season, but I just don’t understand how you could have watched Duke erase a double-digit second half deficit to force Frank Mason’s heroics and come away feeling any other way.

Duke was playing without Harry Giles III, who likely won’t be available until ACC play, if at all. They were without Jayson Tatum. They were without Marques Bolden. That’s two of the five most talented players in the country and, in total, three likely lottery picks come June’s NBA Draft.

But there’s more.

Duke played just six guys on Tuesday night in the Garden, and the best player that’s actually able to suit up for the Blue Devils – Grayson Allen, who was the most popular pick for Preseason National Player of the Year – was bad. He finished with 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting and never really seemed to get into the game until the final minutes.

“Grayson had a frustrating game,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You can’t expect to get fouled. I think he’s going to a point where he makes a move and it’s a good move and he expects a foul.”

“He’s playing hard when he gets the ball, but he needs to play harder when he doesn’t have the ball, which is what he did in the last few minutes.”

And despite all of that, Duke still led Kansas heading into halftime and still managed to scrap back from a 67-57 deficit with less than five minutes left on the clock.

“We’re a good team otherwise we’d get blown out of here tonight,” Coach K said. “But we’re a limited team right now. We’re not who we imagined ourselves to be. That’s not an excuse, it’s just the way it is. We’ll see what happens when we get guys back.”

It is still unclear when that is going to be. Duke is going to be in no hurry to bring Giles back, not when his earning power could disintegrate if he suffered another knee injury this year. Neither Tatum nor Bolden are dealing with serious injuries – Tatum has a sprained foot and Bolden has what Duke terms a “lower leg injury” – but initial reports said both of them should have been available on Tuesday night.

But ironically enough, having those three sidelined for the Champions Classic may have been the best thing for the Blue Devils, because Coach K now knows what he has in Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson and, frankly, Chase Jeter.

Kennard was the best player on the floor for the Blue Devils. He finished with 22 points, five boards and five assists and was responsible for 15 of Duke’s points – three buckets and three threes that he assisted on – in a 20-10 run that tied the game at 75 with 30 seconds left.

“He had a really good game tonight,” Coach K said. “He’s played really well. He’s played well in every practice. He’s a really good player. We expected him to be really good. I wouldn’t say he’s overachieved because he’s a big time player, and big time players show up in these environments.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts against the Kansas Jayhawks in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Jackson also stepped up and made two huge shots in the final minutes after what was overall a pretty disappointing game for him. His four-point play with three minutes left kept Duke within one possession of the Jayhawks, and he followed that up by hitting the three that tied the game with 22 seconds left, setting up Mason’s game-winner.

Through the season’s first two games, Jackson was arguably Duke’s best player, averaging 19.5 points off the bench. He looked somewhat overmatched for the first 35 minutes on Tuesday night, but that happens to freshmen playing their first game with this kind of spotlight and pressure. The fact that he stepped up and made two critical shots that gave the Blue Devils a chance to win the game is far more important than the off-night that he had.

The same can be said for Jeter, whose stat-line – seven points, four boards and three blocks but three turnovers, four fouls and a 5-for-10 night from the line after missing a couple layups – isn’t as impressive as the impression he made on Coach K.

“I thought this was a big game for Chase,” he said. “There were a couple times he didn’t finish, but I thought he played hard and well.”

“You learn a lot from being in this level of a game,” Coach K added, and that’s what really matters here.

Assuming Duke finds a way to get back to 100 percent health, Kennard and Jackson will probably end up being Duke’s fifth and sixth scoring options. They’ll likely split minutes and find themselves in a similar position to where Allen found himself as a freshman. And when Allen was a freshman, he spent the majority of the year on the bench before exploding in the Final Four to average 13.5 points and spark the title-game run that eventually won the Blue Devils the 2015 national title.

“I thought overall it was a great experience for us,” Coach K said. “They’re going to be one of the best teams in the country throughout the whole year. To play that way when a couple of our veterans didn’t have a good game tonight? It was good for us.”

After Tuesday night, not only does Coach K know that he has those two weapons in his back pocket, but he knows that both Kennard and Jackson have the confidence to be able to succeed in the biggest moments.

If they can lead a short-handed, struggling Duke team back from 10 points down in MSG against a top five team that some – Hi! – have picked to win the national, then what can’t they be trusted to do?

Final thoughts from the Champions Classic

2 Comments

Scott Phillips and I were both in attendance on Tuesday night at the Champions Classic, and while we both wrote plenty of words off of those two games, there was a lot more to discuss that simply couldn’t fit into our stories.

So we put it all here:

Scott: After all of the hype, the Champions Classic is finally over and I’ve got to say that Tuesday night lived up to the hype and so much more, don’t you think, Rob? The crowd was fired up and lively, the freshmen played well and people were reminded of how good Michigan State really is.

I guess we’ll start with Kentucky and Michigan State since it was No. 1 vs. No. 2 and the first game of the night.

(Andrew Wiggins won the Freshmen Showcase)

I’m shocked most at two stats: Michigan State leading Kentucky in fast break points 21-2 and Kentucky outrebounding a Tom Izzo team 44-32?

What do you think those numbers mean going forward and did you have any similar eye-popping numbers that really stood out to you?

Rob: To be honest, I wasn’t all that shocked by the work that Kentucky did on the offensive glass. This team has as much front court depth as we’ve ever seen on one roster, headlined by a freak of nature in Julius Randle. Michigan State? Their biggest issue this season is that their front court behind Adreian Payne is not elite. Matt Costello and Alex Gauna are serviceable against teams that don’t have 25 lottery picks, Branden Dawson is good but undersized, and on Tuesday, Payne was in foul trouble. Do the math. It adds up.

I was surprised by the amount of fast break points Michigan State was able to get, but to me it had more to do with just how bad the Wildcats were in transition. We talked about this at the game. They weren’t hustling back, they gambled for steals, and there was no defensive balance when they were shooting long jumpers. Much of the damage the Spartans did in transition came on run outs and wide-open dunks. It wasn’t like they had the reincarnation of Magic leading the break.

One thing that you mentioned on Tuesday night that really stuck with me was just how good of a job Izzo did game-planning for Kentucky. Packed in defense, anticipating Randle’s spin move, daring Kentucky to shoot. How much of this win belongs to Izzo?

Scott: Good points regarding the rebounding and fast break numbers, Rob. Although Kentucky has more quality size and depth in the front court, it is still shocking to see an Izzo team out rebounded by double digits in any contest.

I think part of the win stems from Izzo’s game plan, part from Michigan State players stepping up and performing and part from Kentucky’s inexperience in big games.

Izzo’s early defensive game plan was fantastic and they did a nice job collapsing on Julius Randle when he got isolation or post touches and between Michigan State’s aggressive switching and Kentucky’s stagnant offensive it was a recipe for early disaster for Kentucky’s offense.

I actually thought Kentucky’s half-court defense wasn’t too bad and they showed a lot of positive signs in that department going forward if they can shore up the transition defense. Kentucky is long and athletic on the defensive end and they also limit second chance opportunities because of their rebounding prowess so they should be okay in that department.

But how about Michigan State’s players stepping up? Izzo can gameplan all he wants but Payne and Harris looked like pros in the first half and nobody in America expected Keith Appling to be the most complete guard in the game with that 22-8-8 line. Heck, even Branden Dawson was a solid x-factor rebounding, running the floor and guarding multiple positions.

Do we see more performances like that from Michigan State’s players — specifically the inconsistent Appling and Payne — or was this an anomaly?

And how do you see Kentucky’s youth growing from here?

Rob: Kentucky will only get better. I thought they were the most likely team to win a national title entering the season, and last time only affirmed that belief.

(Kentucky has the talent. Now they need the time.)

One team that I think I underrated is Kansas. The Jayhawks are going to be a problem, and the biggest reason is Perry Ellis. The dude is going to be a force on the block, and while I think he was in for a big season, I did not think he was going to be as good as he looked on Tuesday. Granted, it is just one game, I know, but if he can be a 15 ppg guy, he makes Kansas a completely different team on the offensive end of the floor, especially if his post game is truly developed and not just a result of going up against a Duke team that doesn’t have a ton on the inside.

Here’s my question: Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker were awesome vs. Kansas. Both looked like lottery picks. Jabari looked like Paul Pierce and Grant Hill had a baby, which is even more terrifying as a theoretical hooper than it would be if they actually had a child.

But I’m concerned about Duke. I thought they’d be better spreading the floor offensively, especially given the new foul rules. But Rasheed Sulaimon was no where to be found, Matt Jones and Tyler Thornton played a ton of minutes while Andre Dawkins was ducktaped to the bench. Amile Jefferson scored some points, but he couldn’t get a rebound if his life depended on it and Perry Ellis abused him like he was Yi Jianlian’s chair.

Does that say more about Duke or about Kansas?

Scott: It says more about Kansas to me. I think we both underestimated the Jayhawks heading into the game and it’s not as if I thought they weren’t talented — they’re loaded — I just didn’t feel like they’d mesh against the talent of Duke this early in the year.

Perry Ellis was a revelation last night and he’s going to be the difference of Kansas’ season going forward. Wiggins will be Wiggins and Kansas has other talent, but if Perry Ellis can get positive post touches it opens up the entire floor for Kansas.

If Ellis commands doubles, or at least the help attention of other defenders, then it opens driving lanes, spaces the floor for shooters and eases things for a freshman center like Joel Embiid.

I know Embiid only had two points and took one of the worst three-point attempts you’re likely to see all season, but he did have five (!) assists as a freshman center and still should be able to finish easy lobs and plays around the rim if defenders are drawn to Ellis. Embiid is only going to improve and so are Kansas’ other young guns.

If Wiggins and Ellis are a consistent 1-2 scoring punch with Selden and the perimeter also playing well, Kansas is going to be really tough to defend.

Which brings me to my question about Duke: Is this team ever going to be able to beat a premier post team or can the Blue Devils shore up their interior defense?

Jabari Parker was a better post defender than I thought — and he rebounds well enough to play the 4 against most teams — but isn’t it going to wear him down if he constantly has to take a beating against a bigger post player while having to create offense on the other end?

(Jabari Parker dazzles the hometown crowd)

Are you worried about Parker’s 3-for-8 second half with a few turnovers and do you think he wore down as the game went on?

Rob: I’m going to go back and rewatch the game this weekend, but I think it had less to do with wearing down than it did with Kansas saying ‘I’m sick of this dude lighting us up’. Wiggins switched on him a bit, which made for a tougher matchup as well.

Duke’s interior defense will be an issue all year long. There’s no way around it. They won’t run into a ton of teams in the ACC with a dominant low-post presence, but I think that it’s more of a red flag than we first realized, particularly when the Blue Devils play an elite team with a talented low-post option. If they switch Marshall Plumlee with one of the other Plumlees, will anyone actually notice?

The bottom-line is this: right now, Michigan State is the best, most complete team in the country. When Keith Appling plays the way he did Tuesday, and Harris and Payne live up to their potential, the Spartans are going to be tough.

But I think what Tuesday night taught us is that there are a number of teams that are no where near finished products just yet. In fact, I’d say that Kentucky, despite the loss, was the most promising. They erased a 15 point deficit to the No. 2 team in the country that had all three of their best players playing well while shooting 20-36 from the foul line, committing 17 turnovers, missing open three after open three and looking somewhat overwhelmed by the moment.

Those errors are fixable. Those problems can be solved with practice, experience and a dose of confidence.

I left Chicago feeling very good about picking Kentucky to win it all.

Dan Patrick Show: Has the student-athlete become extinct? (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

Ever since the NBA changed its rules regarding early entries, requiring prospects to be at least one year removed from high school before being eligible to enter the NBA Draft, many have debated whether or not these prospects are “truly” student-athletes. Dan Patrick discussed the topic on the Dan Patrick Show this morning, just hours after some of the best freshmen in the country played in the Champions Classic in Chicago.